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  • Romantically Speaking to Save the Suicidal Self in Tennessee Williams and Mary Shelley
  • Kirsty Cameron (bio)

It is uncommon to situate the topic of Romantic suicide in twentieth-century American letters. Yet, an uncustomary pairing of works between Mary Shelley and renowned American playwright Tennessee Williams illuminates a similar preoccupation with the phenomenology of poetic and narrative expression as related to issues of Romantic suicidal consciousness and death. The similarity evidences a shared Romantic theory of art related to narrative identity. The theory may be understood through Julia Kristeva's psychoanalytic concept of a narrative self. This a self largely organized by language, whose dissolution corresponds with a deadly silence. For Kristeva's narrative self, an inability to address adequately or recover from loss through satisfying significations in language leads to a "living death" state of despair, which is the crux of a type of suicidal ideation, sometimes leading to suicidal death (4). Over a century before Williams explored the mediating effects of writing and art on the artist in his rich canon, his Romantic progenitor asked similar questions related to literature and storytelling in her novella, Mathilda (written in 1819 and published in 1959). Particularly, Williams's 1958 play Suddenly Last Summer shares much in common with Mathilda. In both Suddenly Last Summer and Mathilda, the psychologically violent limit on the Romantic figure of the creative self, who is also a child constrained by an incestuous parental relationship, becomes a suicide wish and then actual or impending death, with a trace of the artist/child's legacy remaining in forms of sadly truncated literary expressions. Suicidal consciousness in these texts symbolizes the failures of writing and storytelling to save the sensitive person. However, this tragic effect is not ultimately the failure of art or expressions in language. If creative expression is limited to the point of suicidality, the question becomes what limits expression? The protagonists of both Williams and Shelley cannot write enough or speak enough to save themselves because their narrative identities have been too confined by other narratives. Specifically, the unspeakability of taboo desire adds to the previous parental limits placed on identity to the extent that language cannot amend any loss of the self in a Kristevan sense. [End Page 19] Williams and Shelley employ a similar, archetypal Romantic character in texts demonstrating a shared belief in the vitality of writing, and a critique of the destructive restrictions of narrative freedom. While both Suddenly Last Summer and Mathilda highlight sad ends for their poetic characters, they still point to a hopeful possibility in poetry and art. Although there is much critical debate over Williams's designation as a Romantic writer, reading Williams in relation to Shelley broadens a view on his Romanticism (see Dorff and Tischler). Since Shelley's contribution to a Romantic discussion of narrative is significant in both the lesser known Mathilda and the more popular Frankenstein—and this theme is strongly resonant in Williams, with Suddenly Last Summer and Mathilda readable as inverted, parallel narratives—it is productive to view Shelley in light of a latent, Romantic, intertextual reference, whose foundational Romanticism echoes in Williams.1

While recent literary criticism on Williams classifies him as other than a Romantic writer per se, and his relationship to Romanticism is complex, his lifelong themes in a canon of over 100 plays, several collections of short stories, essays, and books of poetry continually evidence a preoccupation with questions about language and art associated with the British Romantic period. These questions relate particularly to the power of the poetic imagination, language's transformative affect, and faith in art's potential to express significant meaning or truths. Yet, Annette J. Saddik states that Williams rejects Romanticism's idealizations of poetry and art, especially according to what she says is his view that "language, images, [and] all forms of representation are inevitably inadequate and cannot contain emotion, impulse, [or] desire" (6). Saddik states that Williams is grounded in expressionistic explorations of distortions of the body and of being, which deny any possibility for these distortions to be intelligibly contained by artistic forms (6). The critic also reasons that Williams's focus on sexuality and violence as life's "bizarre...


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